By John Denton
April 11, 2017
ORLANDO – A season that was supposed to be different, one that was supposed to get the Orlando Magic back in the playoffs following four years of challenging rebuilding, coaching changes and player movement, is instead concluding with a familiar hollowness.
Because things stayed the same in terms of the Magic failing badly and missing out on the postseason yet again, change at a variety of levels within the organization is almost certain not long after the regular season concludes on Wednesday night at the Amway Center.
In Year 5 of the re-tooling of a Magic franchise that once was an Eastern Conference playoffs fixture by reaching the postseason six straight seasons, Orlando (28-53) frustrating fell flat again. The problems couldn’t possibly be pinpointed to one area because they were so widespread throughout a team that got off to a rocky start, struggled with chemistry and construction issues through the season’s midsection and has disturbingly wheezed to the finish line.
As if an Orlando team with a 40-point loss, six 30-point defeats and eight more collapses by at least 20 points hadn’t already suffered enough this season, its frustration and exasperation seemed to come to a head in Monday’s penultimate game. A 122-75 loss to the Chicago Bulls – the worst defeat in franchise history – left Magic coaches and players at a loss to attach words that could appropriately describe their frustration.
“We’re not good enough …. I share responsibility,’’ Magic coach Frank Vogel said. “I haven’t gotten the most out of these guys.’’
Vogel, who was hired last May following a highly successful 5½-year head coaching run in Indiana, fully expected to have the Magic in the playoffs this season. The franchise was extremely proactive last July by trading for Serge Ibaka and Jodie Meeks and signing veterans Bismack Biyombo, Jeff Green and D.J. Augustin to complement the young core of Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton and Mario Hezonja. However, that construction process was filled with flaws because the overloading of size made the defense slow and clunky, while the offense still lacked outside shooting and dynamic playmaking.
Warning signs that trouble was ahead arose in the preseason and showed themselves all throughout a 6-11 start. Orlando seemed to have steadied itself during an encouraging 4-1 trip in early December that brought the record to a respectable 10-12. Soon after, however, three straight losses followed. The Magic’s maddening inconsistency played out from Dec. 26 to March 20 when they incredibly failed to win consecutive games over an 11-week stretch.
“It was the way that we played,’’ said Vucevic, referring to his team’s lack of trust in playing together. “We had a lot of lineup changes. We didn’t play basketball the right way and it wasn’t easy for anybody on this team – not just myself – to show what they can do. I don’t think any player on this team will say that they are happy with their season personally and received what they wanted.’’
Ibaka wasn’t nearly the feared rim-protector he was early in his career, while Biyombo never recaptured the infectious way he played last spring while leading Toronto to the Eastern Conference Finals. Meeks was hurt twice, and Green and Augustin failed to be difference-makers in the locker room or on the floor.
Ibaka, who cost the Magic three players to acquire, was dealt to Toronto on Feb. 14 for Terrence Ross, a versatile shooting guard who made Orlando better equipped to face the small-ball looks sweeping the NBA. With its new-look style of play, Orlando notched big wins against Miami, Atlanta, Chicago and Detroit after the all-star break, but the successes were always short-lived. Crushing losses to Portland, Washington, New York, Oklahoma City and Boston – games where Orlando held late leads – ruined the chances of building something sustainable.
Fournier, who re-upped with Orlando last June, posted career highs in almost every category, but Vucevic’s offensive production regressed as he struggled to coexist inside with Ibaka and Biyombo. Gordon and Payton had their highs – the former with his high-flying dunks and the latter with five triple-doubles after the all-star break – but playing them together proved challenging because of their limitations as shooters.
Vucevic, the longest-tenured player on the Magic with his five seasons of service time in Orlando, said this season has been the most difficult to take because his expectations were so high. He bought in that this season would be different than the rest, but he often let his frustrations overtake him when struggles came on a nearly nightly basis.
“It’s been a very difficult season for me personally because I really had high expectations for the team and for myself personally. Neither of those (goals were reached),’’ he said. “I didn’t achieve anything for the team and I didn’t play at the level that I thought that I would. I felt like I’ve progressed every season that I’ve been here, except this one. I’m very disappointed. I’m trying to finish off the season the best that we can and then it’s going to be a big summer. We’ll see what happens.’’
Change has been something of a constant during Vucevic’s time in Orlando. He’s played with dozens of teammates and for four coaches – Jacque Vaughn, James Borrego, Scott Skiles and now Vogel – so little can surprise him now. He stressed late Monday night that he doesn’t think or talk much with teammates about what changes could come to the organization over what figures to be another busy offseason.
The change that Vogel most wants to see is Orlando being back in the playoff chase a year from now. The coach admitted on Monday that the sensation of being out of the postseason chase was a foreign one for him and he didn’t want to feel it again anytime soon.
“It’s the first time that I’ve been in this boat as a head coach,’’ said Vogel, who made the playoffs five times in Indiana and missed out the other season on a tiebreaker. “What do you about it? It’s not someplace that I want to be ever again. We’re going to work to turn this around next year.’’
Vogel said his belief is strong as ever that the Magic aren’t as far away from winning as this sour season might suggest. Perpetually positive, Vogel feels there will come a time real soon when the Magic will be the ones readying for the playoffs instead of feeling the hollowness of coming up short again.
“I enjoy a good challenge in my life and this is a big challenge,’’ Vogel said this past weekend. “It’s difficult and painful losing as much as we have, working as hard as we do, and not seeing the success.
“Like I said, it’s a good challenge,’’ he added. “I am very blessed and thankful to be the coach of this team and I look forward to the days where we are the team kicking people’s butt in the playoffs. I look forward to that.’’
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